Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bride of Bogartstein: IN A LONELY PLACE (1950)

Spousal abuse is so demonized these days that not a single redeeming characteristic is allowed to remain in our violent men of drama. Gone are the magnetic brutes like Stanley Kowalski, gone deep but abusive artists like Dix Steele in IN A LONELY PLACE (1950). It's not surprising then that we're unprepared for how hard it has become to adapt to these characters and their sudden brutal displays. We've become accustomed to not having to think about violent men in any way other than as cardboard action targets, as objects first for derision, then hate, then vengeance, and lastly more derision. No more can they seem sexy, or have good qualities.

But Bogart is Bogart, he could play a serial killer and we'd have to like him, and since he's playing a famous Hollywood screenwriter his tantrums and blinding rage white-outs (1) go unchecked save for police intervention which his studio then works to keep out of the papers. This is the kind of guy you should just get away from, the minute you meet him, but can't since he's famous, witty and charming in a bleak sort of way --he's Bogart! He's inescapable. His fist has a gravitic drag. Thus a brute is allowed to stay brutish as a side effect of his Hollywood success, when he should be in jail, or the ring: "I've had hundreds of fights," he says to Gloria Grahame as his concerned neighbor, as if that's some sort of mark of the martyr, some mark of courage.  Many other successful men in Hollywood must go through their whole adult life without throwing a real punch, especially with the proximity of lawyers never in doubt.

While Bogart looms like an electric golem gone to gray suits, Grahame flexes her beautiful face into a Hollywood glamor death mask as she tosses and turns in bed, worrying that she's sleeping with a raging egotist who could fly into a homicidal rage over the slightest thing she does wrong; this keeps her awake and she starts taking pills to sleep. He might not like that, so she worries more: "This one's not going to let you go that easy," snaps her masseuse, who it is implied has given her more than one happy ending over the years. Grahame's sad eyes show that for all his violence and bossiness, Dix is the last non-loser she's likely to run into before her happiness clock expires. But he's worse than a loser, he's a thug with an expensive tux and a case of the eternal shakes.

Bogart doesn't even allow us the comfort of falling back on his Bogart charm. Instead he lets himself get creepy, and his dark self-effacing wit seems strained. The Bogie we know is too sharp not to know when those around him are turned off, but Dix has no clue. Bogart is brave enough to show the angles by which even his actorly charisma can be exposed as vain antipathy. Even Dix's "A simple yes or no will do very well" proposal of marriage comes off like a threat. He sees marriage as providing any lady her luckiest break (or fracture) like signing a deal with a confused white tiger, or an arm-rending chimp, temporarily cute and calm but... really, the rest of your life with this thing? The only way out is to cultivate a penchant for servile masochism. As if to illustrate, Dix's battered agent exclaims to Gloria in the least coded of gay double entendres: "He's Dix Steel, and if you want him you've got to take it all" Rationalizing the hurt, he notes: "People like him can afford to be temperamental."

Any self-respecting woman would have left Dix the moment he first snapped, just as Krasner should have left Pollock when he made his first embarrassing scene at the dinner table. But such are those few unlucky moths that are so blind enough they can only see the most brilliant light, the light of charismatic madness, and so become stuck on the bulb of an ego that has swollen mercilessly with the pumping eternal handshake current of exploding pockets and the bloody war-like business of making pictures.

I'll admit the first few times watching IN A LONELY PLACE I got a headache, partially from the unpleasant frisson of seeing Bogart so messed up, but mainly from all those ringing phones! The road to Hollywood heaven must be paved with nonstop telephone calls. I guess in L.A. they are like music.  The best phone calls I ever had were from a girl in L.A. They went on for hours, for days! It's the very breathing of the biz, and you can tell Dix's never stops ringing. Ding Dong, indeed, the dead witches are in the making. The infernal bells are enough to drive anyone mad.

Director Nicholas Ray loved his insane abusive geniuses, and the link between Dixon and James Mason's tyrannical father in BIGGER THAN LIFE is clear: Hollywood is (or was) the place where white rage fights, shooting, drugs and casual sex are wantonly indulged in, thought about, and depicted for the enjoyment of the world. Certainly Ray indulged in these things, but his love makes him different than the poseurs of violence and despair. His forgiveness of his fucked up protags is his way, perhaps, of trying to forgive his own trespasses. Like Sal Mineo's tortured puppy killer in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, or Mason's most unsexy madness in BIGGER THAN LIFE, Bogart's illness has a groovy poetry. Both BIGGER and IN A LONELY PLACE show a man who thinks you are swooning at his brilliance and fearless spending instead of cringing in embarrassment.

Perhaps only natural bullies can make it in Hollywood, can climb the chain of intimidation. Or maybe all these are just excuses. Of course it would be damn nerve-wracking living with someone so violent, but Bogart was always a little menacing anyway, that's what gave his heroes their punch, the sudden eruptions, the "that means one of you is gonna get a beating for nothing!" climax of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, or that cruel mirth in his eyes when he knocks out Joel Cairo in MALTESE FALCON.

I just gave some strange writerly advice to someone: "never give it your all unless your paid less than it's worth." Was that my dyslexia, or was this apparent paradox part of the sick queasy feeling created by seeing what financial overcompensation can do to a man like Dix Steele? When MALTESE FALCON followed LONELY PLACE on TCM (for Bogart Day), it seemed like a twisted freakshow out of Todd Browning; I've seen FALCON a trillion times but suddenly the camera angles seemed beyond bizarre. Long takes of nothing: a phone gradually reached for and talked into offscreen; a phone on the night table, the lit cigarette. I finally realized I should be wondering if Bogie's in bed with Mrs. Archer, or alone reading a racing form. When we finally see him again it's from low angles, looming around big hotel lobbies or taking his maternal support on the sly from Effie. He's a terrifying bully, all of a sudden, just from the proximity to Ray's film on the TCM schedule.

In other words, Bogart seen after IN A LONELY PLACE is a monster no matter who he's playing. He's a Universal horror monster figure who escaped to Warner's to be a gangster and then rampaged his way up to stardom and romantic protagonists. He and his first wife were known as "the battling Bogarts." This was never a man to fuck with. Such a man is maybe too quick to violence even in WW2 approved locales, but Ray is able to locate the monster underneath all the heroism and the sweet poet soul underneath the monster. Once the war is over and there's no one left to legally kill, the monster in the Bogart persona starts to crack through the detective/war hero/romantic lead mask, right along the crow's feet, and his dormant Frankenstein monster starts trying to reach out to crush someone.

The fourth time through PLACE, gone was my headache over the phones, and to the floor was my jaw at the sheer intense brilliance of Bogart's slow burns and sudden lashings. When something doesn't go his way, the anger begins, and then every attempt to quiet him is regarded through progressively more paranoid eyes. In the end the murder mystery is solved and yet Dix has almost started a whole new one. Dix's ego is such that he shouldn't be allowed to be in a movie, any movie, but Nicholas Ray never gives up on any character, even when they're so foul we recoil in shock that we're seeing them at all, let alone as protagonists. His love for dangerous maniacs is contagious; their lives are his downfall, and our redemption.

NOTES: 1. I had a rage white-out once, and I can tell you it's exactly what it sounds like - you literally go blind; a kind of dissolving white noise signal clouds your vision, and you start lumbering towards your prey like a drunk Frankenstein.


  1. "Bogart is fascinating because he's a monster. He's a Universal horror monster figure who escaped to Warner's to be a gangster and then fought his way up to stardom and protagonists."

    Holy shit, man, that's beautiful.

  2. This one's fit for framing and hanging on the wall.


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